Earlier this week, Richard "Kudo" Couto's Animal Rescue Mission busted its latest illegal slaughterhouse. Four men connected to VIP Animal Sales have been arrested and charged with selling horse meat and abusing dozens of animals.
But Couto says there's more to the story. His investigations into the Homestead farm also found evidence of animal sacrifices, possibly connected to Palo Mayombe, an Afro-Caribbean religion that Couto has controversially raged against.
Thanks in part to Couto's undercover work at VIP, its owners were busted for illegally slaughtering horses and other animals. Couto says he was looking into a side business there to sell animals for religious sacrifices when he came across a room filled with burning candles, dolls and blood-covered statues. Pots were filled with animal heads and money. Swords and knives were everywhere.
Couto has raised similar alarms in the past about animal sacrifices connected to Palo Mayombe, a syncretic religion which started in Africa and moved through Cuba. In the past year-and-a-half, Couto says he's found more than 10 Palo sites used for sacrifices. In April of 2012, ARM discovered the largest one ever to be investigated by the United States, and the Florida Department of Health released a public advisory warning in Hialeah after human remains laced with mercury were discovered there.
"It's the darkest form of black magic there is on the planet," Couto says of Palo Mayombe. "They put animals in cages or in bags and make the trains run them over. They think that it helps with energy and casting spells on their enemies."
Of course, not everyone shares Couto's (and the Internet's) views on Palo Mayombe. Albert Wuaku, assistant professor of religious studies at FIU, says that calling Palo the "dark side of Santeria" or "black magic" is ridiculous. "Almost every tradition practices some sort of sacrifice," he said. "Christianity is based on the human sacrifice of Christ. Is that a dark side?"
Furthermore, Wuaku says Palo doesn't really have a strong presence in South Florida. (Although he also says it's impossible to guess the number of practitioners, because they lack an organized structure, such as a church.) He calls Couto's anti-Palo campaign myopic and culturally insensitive. "It is not fair how these religions are treated," he said. "They are simply misunderstood, because observers do not seek to appreciate what they do from the standpoints of their world views."
Couto has also gotten into an extended war of words with Ernesto Pichardo, the man who won a Supreme Court victory over animal sacrifices in 1993. Pichardo thinks the guerilla activist is just using scare-tactics to get people interested in his cause. "Since Palo Mayombe has been getting this horrible rap, it plays into the American psyche very well. You can say 'these people are evil, they kill goats, and let me implant in the listeners' mind that it was done for a dark, evil religion.'"
Even Couto's religious consultant, Anthony Kail, is quick to distance himself from Couto's provocative comments. "True enough there were some religious artifacts at the scenes, but the fact is that the acts of cruelty have little to do with religion and everything to do with sociopaths and deviancy," he wrote New Times in an e-mail.
Here's the raw footage of ARM's investigation into VIP Animal Farms. Regardless of your views on Palo Mayombe, it's graphic stuff: